Tuesday, April 26, 2011

An Epic Mess

For a league that used to pride itself on being the model for every other professional sport, the NFL is sure a mess at the moment. By comparison, the NHL looks like a sea of absolute sanity.

With Judge Susan Richard Nelson issuing an injunction to prevent the NFL from locking out its players, confusion has become the operational imperative. Players have been showing up at team facilities, ostensibly to work out, only to be told that the weight room is closed. Meanwhile, DeMaurice Smith, the head of the trade association formerly known as the NFLPA, has been his usual smug self suggesting in interviews that the owners are breaking the law. Roger Goodell has been playing the Kevin Bacon role and asking everyone to remain calm. No one is really listening to either one.

The real work that is taking place is more legal maneuvering in the form of a motion that the owners filed to have the judge hold off enforcing her injunction until the owners’ appeal of her ruling has been decided. I doubt she’ll grant it. The owners also have filed that appeal, asking for an expedited review. They may get that.

As the dispute turns nasty, fans are wondering who exactly to blame for all of this. The simple answer is both sides. The full answer is the owners, first, and then the union.

To understand the roots of this dispute, you have to go back to the last collective bargaining agreement that was negotiated between Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw. Those negotiations seem headed for an impasse and perhaps a strike until Tagliabue came in and finalized a deal that angered many of the owners. They thought that in an effort to keep the peace, Tagliabue had given away the store by allowing the players to keep too big a piece of the pie.

To the owners’ way of thinking, they take all the financial risk of the sport, have the most invested and thus should see the lion’s share of the profits. To them, giving the players the majority of the money was insane. However, the owners did approve that deal, although very reluctantly, but it isn't any coincidence that Tagliabue retired shortly after it was signed. He had lost their support.

Goodell, who worked for Tagliabue, was hired as commissioner knowing exactly why the owners were upset and he knew ultimately that this day was coming. The owners have been spoiling to reconfigure the last labor deal and that's why they opted out of the contract a year early, a right the contract gave them to exercise. So in that sense it was the owners that first set this up for labor Armageddon.

But that doesn’t absolve the union, not in the least. Just as Tagliabue was having problems with his constituents, so too was Upshaw. Retired players like Mike Ditka had openly questioned Upshaw’s apparent indifference to their financial plight. Active players, including former Browns and Ravens kicker Matt Stover, questioned whether Upshaw had grown too cozy with management and thus was no longer looking out for the players’ best interest.

The problem solved itself when Upshaw died in 2008 after a short illness. Eventually Smith was hired, as leaders like him tend to be, on a platform built around demonizing management. It didn’t seem to matter to players that Smith had absolutely no experience in collective bargaining of any sort. He sported the right attitude. So in that sense it was the players next that allowed themselves to be drawn into this position by hiring a neophyte whose sole calling card has been a bad mood and a pouty face.

Smith and his advisers have always understood that this day was coming. They never did construct a strategy around a negotiated settlement to head it off. They built their model around a legal fight that would lead to exactly where things are today. Smith, as a new leader, could never concede on any economic issue without undermining the platform on which he ran to get the job in the first place. That's why the negotiations have gone nowhere.

That may be all well and good for face saving and posturing, but while Smith preens the course he charted for the players who pay his salary is one that threatens the continued existence of the NFL as fans currently know it. Smith and the union seem completely comfortable with letting the league implode as a better alternative to giving in on the economics.

I simply don’t see a negotiated settlement to this mess on the horizon unless the owners are willing to capitulate on their fundamental plan to re-cut the league’s economic pie. That won’t happen in the short term because the worse things get the more hardened positions become.

What I do see happening is much more legal gymnastics. The appeal of Judge Nelson’s ruling is but the first step. Next up is the battle at the NLRB over whether or not the union’s decertification was a sham. That charge has been filed but the NLRB hasn’t ever been known as an agency that moves quickly. Even if it did in this case, whatever decision it makes will be appealed by a completely separate court of appeals, setting up further legal uncertainty.

That means that playing out in one court will be the issue of whether or not the union’s decertification was lawful. If it was, that further bolsters their anti-trust claims pending in Judge Nelson’s court. If it was not, then the players’ lawsuit is eviscerated. The lockout would be lawful and the only way the players would ever get back in is with a negotiated settlement. No judge would be permitted to issue an injunction to stop that lockout.

The main point to all of this is that nothing about this legal process gets resolved quickly. It’s not even a matter of weeks or months, but years if allowed to play out to its ultimate conclusion.

So where does that leave everything at the moment? Jumbled, that’s where. But remember this. The players can win every battle and still lose the war. If the parties continue down this path, then a new world order will emerge.

The scenario I see is rather simple and ultimately the only path forward if things continue as they are: if ultimately forced to end the lockout and play, the owners, contrary to popular belief, would be just as happy with letting every player in the league become a free agent. There won’t be salary caps, a draft or any other league wide rules. Each team will decide what it wants to spend on players and what benefits it wants to provide.

That may sound like major league baseball in one sense, but I don’t see the NFL ever becoming a league of haves and have nots. What I do see is every team cutting their payroll dramatically and offering various tiers of pay and benefits. Some teams may spend money on the top tier of players but every team’s rosters will be filled out with even cheaper talent then it is today. It will be a league with even greater payroll disparity between the best and the rest then exists today.

Eventually that cheap labor will get angry about their pay and benefits and someone will get the grand notion to reform a union for the greater good and work to strike a deal with the owners. The owners will then pounce and the deal they strike will undoubtedly be far better than what they can get from the union at the table right now anyway.

Is this likely to happen? Hard to say at the moment but things are surely headed in that direction. Before it does, though, I suspect you’ll see insurrection from the current players because at some point, sooner or later, enough of them will wake up and find that it was Smith and his lawyers all along and not the owners that were really taking them down the path to slaughter.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Now, It's the Owners' Move

To NFL owners, the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, Minnesota is what Three Rivers Stadium used to be to Cleveland Browns fans—an automatic loss. With Judge Susan Richard Nelson's decision late Monday to enjoin the owners from locking out the players, the losing streak continues and it isn't looking good for the rest of the legal action the owners are facing in her court, either.

The dispute between the owners and the players is complex but can be boiled down to a few key points in terms of understanding Judge Nelson's ruling.

The owners and the NFLPA were engaged in collective bargaining for a new labor contract. Just before the old contract expired, the NFLPA decertified as the official bargaining representative for the players, meaning that they immediately disclaimed any right to bargain with the owners on the players' behalf. Meanwhile, when the old contract actually expired, the owners imposed a lockout, which is the management equivalent of the employees exercising their right to strike.

In anticipation of the lockout, a group of players, led by Tom Brady, the quarterback for the New England Patriots, filed a lawsuit alleging that the impending (and, ultimately, the actual) lockout constituted illegal concerted action by 32 separate businesses that served to deny the players the economic right to make a living playing professional football. (There were numerous other, similar allegations regarding illegal concerted activity, but for purposes of Judge Nelson's decision, the lockout was at issue.) They also asked the judge to stop the owners from imposing that lockout. The judge granted that request. She hasn't yet ruled on the underlying merits of the players' main contention, that the owners committed numerous other violations of federal anti-trust statutes.

The owners fought that injunction on a couple of fronts, but mainly argued that the players' action in decertifying as a union was essentially a sham. The owners have filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency with exclusive jurisdiction over those kinds of disputes, making just that claim, that the decertification was a sham. That charge has not yet been resolved.

Thus, the gist of the owners' argument, and stripping away the legalese, is that unless and until the NLRB rules on their charge, federal labor law prevents the judge from issuing such an injunction.

Because this is professional sports, it seems as if the issues become unnecessarily complex and harder to grasp. A better way to think about the arguments taking place is to put the dispute in a more typical scenario.

If the owners of a local steel mill were bargaining with their employees for a new contract and then the union struck once the contract expired, federal labor law under almost all circumstances would prohibit a judge from issuing an injunction to stop that strike. The same rules apply when there's a lockout.

So why is this dispute any different? Well, it isn't and it is.

It isn't any different because the same laws govern the NFL's labor problems as the labor dispute at the local mill. It is because the union here did something that no other union would typically contemplate—it decertified. As soon as that happened, at least according to the judge, it turned this into more of a commercial and less of a labor dispute and hence, in her view, the governing labor laws preventing injunctions didn't apply.

Not surprisingly, the owners are going to immediately appeal this ruling to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Whether that court grants the owners an expedited review of the case isn't yet known, but it's certainly not a given. What is certain, though, is that eventually that court will have to issue a decision on all of this litigation is the parties continue down this insane path of self destruction much longer.

Although some commentators suggest that the owners stand a better chance at the court of appeals then they ever did in the district court, the real problem the owners face is the death grip control the Minnesota courts have over the league in the first place. For this the owners have essentially only themselves to blame when they agreed to allow the court to maintain that control as part of the settlement the last time these parties went to the mattresses to resolve their differences.

The other problem for the owners is that they really have very little room to maneuver from a legal standpoint, even if their arguments make practical sense. Federal labor law supports the ability of a certified bargaining representative to give up that status at their discretion, assuming it's done in good faith. In the past, good faith has been defined to mean simply that the members of the union unequivocally voted to decertify. That was certainly the case here.

So much of the owners' position before the NLRB and hence in the district court as well hinges on trying to make the argument that despite the players voting to decertify, the decertification wasn't in good faith. If the decertification is a sham, the argument, goes, then the law absolutely prohibits a judge from enjoining a lockout.

Unfortunately for the owners, there's very little authority for their view, as the judge noted. Thus, she didn't believe the federal labor law preventing injunctions applied.

As the judge noted in her opinion, past strikes have failed the players, although such a finding is of dubious legal relevance. Nonetheless, given that the only effective way for the players to balance the perceived imbalance of power between them and the owners is for them to bargain and, failing that, decertify to prevent the owners from imposing new working conditions. If the owners know that the union can decertify at any time, they will effectively be forever precluded from locking out the players again. In the judge's view, this is a perfectly acceptable strategy. She's right, but so what?

This is where the short-sightedness of all this really bubbles to the surface. The threat of decertification to prevent a lockout only works when it's the owners trying to extract economic concessions. It is of no consequence and indeed harmful if it's the union seeking economic gains because the owners in that situation would love nothing more than to preserve the status quo.

Issues change over the years and eventually what does around does come around. When the economy does improve, the players will want a bigger piece of the pie and it will be the owners that will sit back and not lift a finger to give it to them.

Moreover, and perhaps more to the point, the union's pursuit of legal leverage is ultimately what is preventing these parties from reaching a meaningful agreement. As long as the players continue to live under the misguided notion that a court will force the owners to withdraw their demands for economic realignment they will never sit down and engage in meaningful bargaining. Indeed, they players and their representatives have yet to approach these negotiations in a meaningful way.

The legal machinations between the owners and their employees here are about as exciting as watching televised chess to the average fan. What fans want to know is whether or not there will be football come this fall. Right now it's looking better but that could change with the next pawn-to-queen's-rook-four move that gets made in the form of the owners' next legal filing.

Keep in mind, though, that however long any or all of this legal process takes, the ultimate truth is that NFL football being played each and every fall is only possible for as long as reasonable parties with shared interests want to see that happen and that can only happen with a new agreement The owners grasp that point. I'm not so sure the players or their misguided advisers ever will.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Best Player Available

With the NFL draft looming like another rain cloud over an Ohio spring day, fans in these parts are still wondering what to think. The hard core among them have read every draft preview written by anyone with access to a keyboard and a web site. They've scoured all of the various mock drafts for insight. They've debated their buddies over beers. And yet until someone representing the Cleveland Browns shoves an index card in front of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell next Thursday night, there is no way of really knowing how to fill in the blank that follows the statement “with the 6th pick in the 2011 NFL draft, the Cleveland Browns select....”

If waiting is the hardest part, it's also just about the best thing about the draft. Anticipation, speculation, tea-leaf reading, call it what you want but the NFL knows full well that what attracts people to their made-for-television NFL draft spectacle, now spread over 3 days, is the anticipation.

And no matter what actually happens, it never lives up to the hype—just like Christmas.

Browns' general manager Tom Heckert gave the traditional pre-draft press conference a few days ago where he was as purposely vague as the plot to a M. Knight Shyamalan film. I think Marla Ridenour from the Akron Beacon Journal aptly captured the proceedings when she admitted how absurd it was for her to listen back to Heckert's chuckle trying to discern meaning in it when he laughingly suggested he didn't share the same perception as many others about North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn and Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley.

That's what these things come down to and yet we know that it was never Heckert's intent to really offer any insight into the Browns' thinking about the draft. That's not a criticism, either. No good could come from being forthcoming and that's the point. Heckert is no different then any team's general manager. Draft plans are treated by NFL teams like Coca-Cola executives treat theformula for its soft drink.

But that doesn't mean that Heckert's press conference was a total waste of time. For example, I really believe him that the team will be following a “best available player” philosophy because, as he frankly noted, the team has holes just about everywhere. Outside of left tackle, there isn't a top player in the draft that couldn't help this team.

As obvious as a point Heckert made, it was also refreshing. It's not that the Browns' don't have some decent players on the roster, they do. But so many of the players they shove into starting roles are more suited for and would be playing back up positions on really good NFL teams. In a nutshell, that's why the Browns continue to struggle.

The conventional wisdom emerging is that despite the talent deficit on this team the Browns' biggest need is at receiver. Most mock drafts have the Browns filling that need first. Heckert, of course, gave no clue unless you think he was employing a little reverse psychology in suggesting that he's well satisfied with the Browns' current crop of receivers.

Maybe Heckert was doing just that but then I think back to last season when he said the same thing and then went about proving that point by essentially not bringing in any receivers to compete with the rather pedestrian group the Browns currently have on the roster.

Last season should have convinced Heckert that a significant upgrade is needed in that group, but perhaps not as the most pressing need. It just doesn't feel like Heckert will go in that direction. Indeed if you ask 10 people, be it fans or personnel experts from other teams, you're likely to get 10 different opinions on the Browns' biggest need.

In some ways though it's just that kind of divergent opinion that makes the draft so much fun in the first place. With a plethora of gaping needs but no consensus on which pothole should get filled first, the Browns can virtually go in any direction and delight one group of fans and tick off another.

As much fun as this all can be, one of the least pleasant side bars to the run up to the draft is the real damage it can do to the reputation to a prospective player. In the rush that teams have to disguise their intentions, they have no problem using their various “unnamed sources” to trash a player they may secretly covet.

This year's victims seem to be Ryan Mallett, about whom various unconfirmed suspicions about his character are flying about, and Da'Quan Bowers, the Clemson defensive end, about whom various unconfirmed reports on the condition of his knee are likewise flying about.

Heckert didn't address Mallett, probably because there is no reason to deflect attention away from a player the Browns aren't going to draft anyway. But he did address Bowers and contributed to the mess by saying that the team believes Bowers' “knee is going to be all right.”

That's code, of course, for saying that the knee is still a problem. If that's the case, then so be it but it's puzzling why Heckert would couch it in the vein that team doctors have examined Bowers “a hundred times” and are lukewarm in their assessment. Maybe Heckert believes Bowers is likely to be the best available player but he doesn't want to repeat the Montario Hardesty scenario of last year. Maybe it's just another way of telling other teams that the Browns remain interested in hopes that someone will grab Bowers before the Browns have to make a tough decision about him.

Either way, though, it's Bowers' future that's being bandied about like a shuttlecock in a backyard game of badminton and you can't help but feel a little sorry for him. If nothing else, it's going to cost Bowers some money either way.

But if you remain convinced that there is some value in trying to figure out if Heckert was really offering any clues as to the team's draft plans and assuming that his discussion about receivers and Bowers were some indication of his real thoughts, then perhaps the most meaningful statement he gave was with respect to how he believes teams are constructed.

“Quarterbacks are No. 1 and then, I think you go left tackle, defensive end, corners; I think those are the groups,” Heckert said. “You can’t hide corners; you can’t hide left tackles and if you can’t get to the quarterback, you’re in trouble. That’s just league-wide.”

That too may be stating the obvious but on the other hand, understanding that philosophy is about the only way to understand why Heckert makes the decisions he does. The issue then is how exactly does Heckert execute on that philosophy and when. He tends to like undersized defensive ends which he thinks can be had later in the draft when other teams aren't looking. If that's the case, then it would hardly surprise if the Browns start off with another cornerback.

Thus, by simple process of elimination the Browns end up drafting Patrick Peterson, the LSU corner with the 6th pick of the draft. It helps, too, that a compelling case can be made that Peterson would be the best available player at that moment. I'd tell you to write it in stone, but anyone writing anything in stone regarding the NFL draft does so at his own peril.

There will be many that disagree with that analysis, of course, but that's also the point. The fans still have something to talk about. As soon as the draft ends another round of debate begins anew, the draft's winners and losers. What makes that both a sublime and ridiculous exercise is the speed at which those curbside analyses are made without even any games having even been played.

Unfortunately, with the the other rain cloud looming over the NFL at the moment in the form of the serious labor problems the league is facing, those curbside opinions may be all we have to debate for the next several months. Even if Peterson is the one for the Browns, there is every chance right now that it will be a long time before the fans have any real idea whether or not the pick even made sense.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Price of Success

One of the most overused phrases these days, when referencing someone or something you disagree with is to say “he/she/it just doesn’t get it.” It’s a trite phrase, shorthand for a much longer explanation as to why he she or it isn’t doing what you think he she or it should be doing.

And despite my dislike for all things overused and trite, for the life of me I can’t think of a better way to describe both the Cleveland Indians in general and their new general manager, Chris Antonetti, in particular.

The Indians, in the midst of the kind of start that Eric Wedge used to dream about, are starting to build a little bit of buzz. Progressive Field isn’t in danger of selling out any time soon, but for now at least people are starting to take a little more notice then probably anyone anticipated.

In the throes of all this comes Antonetti to reinforce exactly why Indians fans always feel as those who run the organization are less concerned with winning then in meeting budget. In Cleveland, the two goals apparently cannot coexist.

Antonetti accompanied the Indians on their road trip to Kansas City and thus has made himself visible to the media in the same way his mentor, Mark Shapiro used to do. Stop by the television booth to chat with Rick Manning and Matt Underwood for an inning or two. “Good talking to you, Chris. Can you stick around for another half inning?” Then it’s up to the radio booth a bit later to see how Tom Hamilton is holding up. Conduct a little back and forth with the beat writers before the game and then back to the Mother Ship.

As reported by Paul Hoynes in Thursday’s Plain Dealer, it was during just that little back and forth that Antonetti was asked if ownership and the front office was prepared to add to the club if the team was still in contention by midseason.

That might be getting way ahead of ourselves, but on the other hand, it’s a nice little question. Now before we get to Antonetti’s spirit-sucking answer, let’s just pause for a moment on the premise of the question.

Underlying it is still the inherent disbelief from the media that the Indians have the horsepower to really sustain their quick start. That’s certainly understandable. You only have to recognize that people are fretting because Mitch Talbot is on the disabled list to understand why it’s hard to imagine the Indians remaining this competitive for the entire season.

Talbot was off to a nice start, but this is someone with just 31 major league starts under his belt. To say that his career is not yet fully established is just the kind of gloss that someone like Shapiro would put on it. In truth, with a 10-13 record last year and a 4.41 ERA, Talbot at this point in his career is only a middle of the rotation pitcher for the Indians because their rotation is so thin to begin with. And since he’s already 27 years of age, no one is going to confuse him with a phenom.

Yet, Talbot and his 1-0 record are now on the disabled list and it is actual cause for concern. In his place is Jeanmar Gomez and his 12 major league starts. Who knows if that would actually constitute a drop off since the two pitchers are so similar in so many ways (though Gomez is four years younger) and Talbot was only two starts into his season. But at the very least it suggests that whoever asked Antonetti the question was justified in doing so.

Now to get back to Antonetti’s answer, it actually had two component parts. First were the usual disclaimers. He said, “if the team is playing well, we’d have to see where we were at that point, what our needs are and what’s available.”

Time for another pause. Not to parse his words too carefully, but the operative word in that initial response seems to be “if.” It suggests that Antonetti, too, sees the question as surprising mainly because he probably never imagined the Indians being in the thick of a pennant race come mid season.

But other then revealing his own disbelief, which we all share with him, there is nothing particularly offensive about that part of his answer. What else could he say?

Because Antonetti is a Shapiro protégé, which means that nothing sounds nearly as good to him as his own voice, Antonetti kept going and that is where he decided, perhaps unwittingly perhaps not, to make sure no one gets too excited.

Thus he added “then we’d have to see what the acquisition cost would be in terms of players and dollars.” That’s Shapiro-speak for “we aren’t parting with any younger, lower salaried players to rent a pitcher or other necessary part to make a run this season, or any season for that matter. No chance. You hear me? No chance. Got it? No chance.”

Unfortunately, that’s the kind of support that Indians fans have learned to live with these last several years. This team has a budget, an ever shrinking budget at that, and nothing is ever going to cause them to deviate from it. Not on the field success, not the availability of a key player or two to make a run at a title, not pressure from the fans. Nothing.

It’s a dispiriting reminder that in a game with shrinking attendance and fundamental economic problems, the Indians’ owners are not going to get caught up in the heady frenzy of fleeting success if it means cutting into its slim margins.

I actually don’t blame Antonetti for coming up with that answer . The “woe is us” operating mantra has been drilled into his head by Shapiro and his bosses, Larry and Paul Dolan. If anyone thought that Antonetti would have a refreshing take or an original thought on this subject or at least one that wasn’t tethered directly to Shapiro, then they haven’t been paying attention. Antonetti wasn’t promoted because he has some other-worldly baseball acumen. He was promoted because of his ability to toe the party line.

The Indians franchise is inherently pessimistic by nature and acts as if success, as measured by wins and not by budget surpluses, presents a rather disconcerting set of problems to the mix with which they’d rather not deal.

What Antonetti’s rather revealing answer underscores is that the last thing this franchise wants to even contemplate at the moment is a level of wins that would raise fan expectations to the point that potentially risky moves might have to get made, moves that could blow the budget.

This is ultimately the trouble with the team, or more particularly, the people owning and running this team. The fans are singular and united in their interest; they want a winning team. The front office and the owners say they want the same thing but in truth what’s far more appealing to them is a team that doesn’t lose any money.

Their vision of this team is so short-sighted and narrow minded that it never seems to occur to them that actually demonstrating that they share the same goals as the fans, instead of just mouthing the words, could actually have some long-term financial payoff.

As it stands, we’re too early into the season to get angry about moves that will never get made. But we’re never too early into the season to re-learn the lessons that this franchise is really trying to drill into its fans’ skulls: ownership and management doesn’t have anyone’s back but their own.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Lingering Items--Eye Opening Edition

Watching the Indians complete their sweep of the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday served, if nothing else, as a reminder of how easy baseball can seem at times.

In still another textbook example of the kind of baseball every team hopes to play, the Indians’ victory, indeed the entire series, was a clinic of good starting pitching, timely hitting, and an effective bullpen. When those elements click, any team is unbeatable.

For now all of this stands in stark contrast to how we’ve been conditioned by the Indians over the last few seasons. In most cases, the Indians have seen at least two of those three elements, and too often all three, shut down at the same time as they’ve slept walk to one indistinguishable loss after another.

The Indians would seemingly go weeks without getting a timely hit. All too often the scenario played out exactly the same: the first batter would make an out. The next batter would hit a single. The next player would get a single but not be able to advance the runner to third. The next batter would ground out into an inning-ending double play.

If you want a measure of how different things are for this team at the moment, just consider Grady Sizemore’s return to the lineup. First of all, he hasn’t even been off the requisite year it typically takes to recover from microfracture surgery. Then in his first game back his swing looks nearly perfect as he crushed a ball for a home run. Finally, he still had enough speed to turn a ball down the right field line that didn’t get all the way to the fence into a double.

It was enough to make me look twice to confirm that his uniform said “Cleveland.”

How exactly are Indians fans supposed to get used to that? We’re used to things like Travis Hafner coming down with a shoulder problem that lasts longer than the tenure of most Browns head coaches. We’re used to trading great players for projects. We definitely are not used to players coming back from a major injury sooner than they should and performing as if they had been healthy all along.

And then there’s the stellar starting pitching. Watching Fausto Carmona get lit up on opening day seemed to fit like a favorite pair of blue jeans. Watching him throw strikes and baffle hitters in every start since seems to fit like a necktie around a shirt collar that’s pinching you a little too tightly.

It’s not just Carmona, however, that’s causing this comforting discomfort. The relief pitching has been phenomenal. Is it just me or is every Indians pitcher getting ahead of every opposing hitter? By the time the 7th or 8th inning rolls around and the Indians are ahead, the bullpen comes in, throws more strikes and the outcome never much seems in doubt.

Even the obligatory standing ovation awaiting the third out has been going exactly as planned. It never crossed anyone's mind, for example, that closer Chris Perez wouldn't get that third out in the top of the 9th on Sunday, just as scheduled.

Now of course all anyone wants to know, including me, is whether or not there is any chance that the Indians can play this brand of interesting baseball for the rest of the season.

Fourteen games into a season is not a fair sample, certainly. Either is 24. But if the Indians are entering the month of June with 50 or so games under their belt and not much has changed, then it will be time to revise the forecasts.


The NBA playoffs started this past weekend and although the games were on seemingly every conceivable television network, just like the first few rounds of the NCAA tournament, it hardly didn’t generate nearly that level of excitement.

Maybe that’s because this was the first time in years that the Cavaliers were not part of the story or maybe it was because the NBA’s playoff season tends to last longer than the tenure of most Browns head coaches. It’s probably some of both.

Indeed, you can essentially put the NBA playoffs on autopilot for the next month and then come back to see where things stand. You won’t have missed much in the meantime.

But to those interested in such things, the NBA playoffs do offer some insight worth considering. First, they amply demonstrate why the regular season is such a waste of time. Whatever else one might think of NBA players, one thing about them is abundantly clear: they play in a different gear come playoff time.

Maybe that’s true in every sport, but it’s far more evident in the NBA. For example, I’m not exactly sure what it would look like for a major league baseball player to work harder in a playoff game the same way I’m not sure what it would look like for a pro football player to do likewise.

But in the NBA, there is no doubt. The players move with more intensity. Their steps are crisper, the plays make more sense, the picks and fouls are harder. It almost seems that in comparison, the regular season is a fraud, a mostly go-through-the-motions exercise to get to the next step.

Second, the NBA playoffs demonstrate exactly why it is so difficult to construct a championship-caliber team. There is no question that only two or three teams at most in the entire group of 486 playoff teams have any chance of winning the NBA title. All of the various first round victims may be getting that ubiquitous playoff experience but it will come at the expense of their drafting position later this summer. And as we know in the NBA, if you don’t have one of the top few picks in the draft you might as well draft the tall guy you met at the grocery store. His odds of playing in the NBA are only slightly less than the 23rd overall pick in the draft.

All of which brings us right back to the Cavs. By virtue of their inability to stink up the place at the end of the season as much as they did for the other 7/8ths of it, the Cavaliers will now have the second most ping pong balls in the upcoming lottery. They could still very well get the top pick but why were they even messing with the odds in the first place?

There’s no guarantee that the Cavs wouldn’t squander the top pick if they end up with it, but the chance of doing so isn’t nearly as great as with the 5th or 6th pick. And each time over the next few seasons that the Cavs end up picking 5th or 6th in the draft means another year in the NBA’s version of purgatory.

As I’ve documented before, once a team sinks to the depths of the league, it’s a long time, perhaps 10 years or more, before the cycle begins to turn once again in their favor. After the Chicago Bulls last won an NBA title and Michael Jordan retired, it was 6 years until they saw the playoffs again. In the 7 years thereafter, they’ve made the playoffs 6 times but only past the first round once.

The point is that while Cavs general manager Chris Grant can say the team isn't in a rebuild, every conceivable statistic says otherwise. You can't take lose the best player in the league and reconstruct the team that was built around him under a NBA system that simply won't allow it.

The Cavs are in for a long and slow trek back and so the fans in these parts will just have to get used to the NBA’s silly season from afar. But take comfort, by the time the Cavs are once again ready to make a real run, LeBron James will either be retired or on to his fourth or fifth team, like Shaquille O’Neal, as he seeks to hang on for one last shot at a ring. Here’s hoping it will also be for his first ring as well.


The NFL draft is only a week and a half away but until the owners and the trade association formerly known as the NFLPA come to some sort of agreement that ensures there will be football next season everything else that happens will be anti-climatic.

As the parties wind their way through court-ordered mediation it serves as a reminder of how truly complex the business of the NFL (and every other professional sport) really is. The fact that the NFL and its players have high-class problems doesn’t diminish the fact that they have problems nonetheless.

If you’ve ever taken the opportunity to even peruse the expired collective bargaining agreement, you’ll understand why it takes longer than the tenure of most Browns head coaches to understand the complexity of the NFL’s operations. It’s not just a matter of taking the dollars generated in various ways and splitting it up equally among every team. There are significant issues to work through, issues made all the more complicated by a salary cap that overlays an industry where individual players are still free to negotiate their own wages.

There’s no way to tell at the moment whether the current round of mediation will produce an agreement but when the parties are talking there is hope. Each round of new discussions gives each side added insight into what it will truly take to reach an agreement. Even if these talks aren’t successful, whenever a new deal is reached it will have been set up in part by this round of mediation, just as this round was set up by the mediation that took place before the contract expired.

After listening to Roger Goodell last week talk to Browns fans, I remain convinced that Goodell is a dealmaker who is just looking for common ground. He does want to get a deal done.

The problem Goodell has is the same problem any chief spokesman has. The most difficult negotiation isn’t always across the table but with your own people. The owners have a far greater understanding of the economics of the game and thus are harder to corral because of it.

But take heart. Just like the Cavs will eventually return to the playoffs, the NFL will get a new labor agreement and your Sundays (or Thursdays or Saturdays) in the fall and early winter will once again be filled with NFL football. Whether it's next fall and early winter, well, it's too early to say.


With the return to network television of one of the best shows ever made, Friday Night Lights, comes this week’s question to ponder: If Coach Eric Taylor can literally build a new program at East Dillon, win 2 games in his first season, and then beat one of last year’s state finalists in the season’s first game, why didn’t he get even a cursory interview when the Browns had an opening at the end of last season?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Optimistically Skeptical

When a team that was expected to start out 2-8 suddenly starts out 8-2 you’re obliged to take notice. The Cleveland Indians, a rag tag collection of projects and misfits, has played as solid of baseball thus far as any team outside of the Texas Rangers and the locals are doing just that, taking notice.

It’s how they’re taking notice that is probably more of the story than the fact that the Indians currently on pace to win 130 games and make a mockery of the American League Central.

But no true Indians fan dares to even think that way or even risk getting too excited by a quick start. There are a variety of reasons for this.

You can start with the history of the franchise if you want. The phrase “swoon in June and die in July” may not have been invented specifically to describe the Indians teams of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but it fit them like a glove nonetheless. Fans tend to know their history when it comes to this team.

If you want to focus just on recent history, then you could look to the Eric Wedge years. Under Wedge Indians fans got used to seeing even objectively good Indians’ teams start slowly and spend the rest of the season trying to make up ground. Conditioned more to records like 2-8 than 8-2, it follows that there will be some confusion, like the kind your dog gets when you move his dinner bowl.

If you want to get institutional about the whole thing, then you can blame the ownership of Larry and Paul Dolan, coupled with the management of Mark Shapiro, for conditioning the fans to hope for much but expect very little.

Larry Dolan, upon taking over the Indians, made the kind of unfortunate promise that tends to get made in Cleveland sports. It may not be as descriptive as “mad dog in a meat market” but Clevelanders still roll their eyes when they think about Dolan’s famously saying that he would spend money on this time “when the timing was right.” Perhaps the timing just has never been right.

While it is technically true that Dolan has had relatively high payrolls during his tenure, those were essentially players and contracts left over from the Jacobs/Hart years. As those players and their contracts peeled off the books, the payroll purposely has been kept small as a concession to the economic realities of the city they play in and the other teams they consort with.

The one year Dolan really had the chance to fulfill his promise, following the 2007 season, he and Shapiro instead went into a different direction. They dumped payroll, slightly, while failing to add any player more meaningful than 2008’s version of Austin Kearns in the form of utility player Jamey Carroll. There would be no run at the championship as the Indians ended up winning 15 less games than the season before.

If you want to look at a seminal event in the recent history of this franchise, that was it. More than anything else, that level of inaction sent a message to both the fans and the other players on the roster that ownership was never going to spend the money necessary to maintain a club at a high level.

Since then, of course, Shapiro has taken to trading any tradable player who could otherwise bust the budget. Shipping away CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez were important moments in Cleveland history certainly but all those transactions really did was give voice to the direction the Dolans and Shapiro had already set in motion.

All that is why an 8-game win streak at the top of the season generates smiles but not enthusiasm, except among that small group of eternal optimists.

In truth, I admire those eternal optimists and I say that without a shred of sarcasm. Their ability to look at Jack Hannahan and see Brooks Robinson in his prime is heartwarming.

Though my admiration is sincere, where I do draw the line however is the underlying notion that somehow this group in all its rose-colored glasses glory represent the only true fans in this town. They aren’t and not by a long shot.

I have just as much admiration, for example, for the complete cynics whose numbers overwhelm the Pollyanna set. They aren’t any less loyal to their team, just far more skeptical. They look at Orlando Cabrera and see not a savvy veteran but a cheap player well past his prime able to find work only because there are too many teams in baseball.

Simply because this group wants something more tangible to believe in than an early season win streak is no reason to question their loyalty. They’re comfortable in their misery in the same way that the optimists are comfortable in their blissful ignorance.

The truth is that the fan base of this team is no different than that of any professional sports team. Since everything can be graphed into a bell curve, the same holds true for fans. There are the extremes at both ends and a large segment in the middle that float between optimism and a cynicism on a daily basis.

The other truth is that you never really know what kind of baseball season you’re going to get until it actually gets going. All evidence thus far to the contrary notwithstanding, the Indians aren’t a very talented team. Their starting pitching is suspect (or is supposed to be), their bullpen is a bit of a Rorschach ink blot and their hitting is average at best (or is supposed to be).

And yet as the season has gotten underway, outside of the first two games, every one of those suspect elements has performed beyond all expectations. Do Justin Masterson and Mitch Talbot really have 11 or 12 more of those same kinds of performances in them? Is Asdrubal Cabrera really going to hit 30 or so home runs? Has Chris Perez really turned into Dennis Eckersley?

Perhaps the best take away from those performances thus far is that each of those players actually has it within him to play at that level. That’s comforting until you remember that the fact that they are in the major leagues suggests that they should be able to perform like that.

The fact remains that Fausto Carmona along with Talbot and Masterson has demonstrated an ability to shut down an entire team’s offense. Perez can close out games and Cabrera can hit.

The real test comes in the ability to be able to perform at that level consistently. That’s not just the goal in baseball, it’s the goal in every professional sport. The golfing world is full of guys that can hit as good a shot as any player in the history of the game has ever hit. What distinguishes Jack Nicklaus from your brother-in-law is the ability to consistently hit those great shots.

The same is true in baseball. There’s a reason Ryan Garko is in Japan and Derek Jeter is still with the Yankees. Consistently producing is the difference and ultimately will determine if the cast of characters wearing Indians uniforms this season are the real deal or just another in a long line of pretenders.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Lingering Items--Cautionary Tale Edition

The NFL draft is still nearly 3 weeks away, which can only mean one thing: 100 more iterations Tony Grossi's mock draft. Catch the excitement.

Not to pick on Grossi too much, but this really is the problem with the NFL offseason at the moment. The labor issues are complex and the only thing really happening at the moment. Most beat writers like Grossi don't have the inclination to understand them and use the excuse that the public doesn’t care as a way of masking their own laziness.

They just repeat the line about billionaires fighting with millionaires to shorthand the entire discussion without every pausing to think that the more money at stake the more complex the issues.

So they just shy away from the difficult and give us any number of mind numbing mock drafts, some copy editor slaps a headline on it and voila!, news.

Just Friday morning, Grossi submitted his 7th (7th!) mock draft on an unsuspecting public. Because I tend to have the attention span of a puppy when it comes to this sort of thing, I give it all the attention it deserves, which is very little.

First of all, this is just crystal ball gazing taken to high art. The fact that someone like Mel Kiper, Jr. chose to make a living out of it doesn’t somehow elevate it from alchemy to chemistry nor does it mean that every beat reporter with an internet connection suddenly because a quasi-expert like Kiper.

Second, did I mention it’s Grossi’s 7th (7th!) iteration of a mock draft? That means that when he has a hole to fill in the PD’s ever shrinking sports section in the next several days, out will come mock drafts versions 8 and 9. Sooner or later he’s bound to get something right.

On the scale of problems plaguing just the sports world, the proliferation of meaningless NFL mock drafts ranks just below Gloria James’ temper. In other words, the fact that the PD uses such things as a proxy for real news or analysis is relatively harmless, at least in the short term.

But the problem is exactly that: the PD and newspapers like it use such things as a proxy for real news. They are cost conscious, like every employer these days, but they have completely abdicated any responsibility for covering the real stories of the NFL to those on the national scene that apparently do it better in favor of having their local hack twiddle his thumbs, read a few magazines, and draw up mock drafts.

Maybe it doesn't occur to those running the PD and other newspapers why they continue to fall short in the public's imagination, but perhaps it has something to do with no longer being an outlet for actual sports news, at least the kind of actual sports news that's been ferreted out organically.

Reporters like Grossi can only give the newspaper what they’re willing to pay for and at this juncture it looks like they aren’t willing to pay for much, so in some sense he may not be at fault. But in other ways, he and his ilk are part of the problem because they shy away from the more complex in favor of the inane. Just because his employers are tight with a buck isn't an excuse for being tight with one's own creativity.

Speaking of the media, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban took to his blog (blogmarverick.com) recently to advocate for a new world order when it comes to media access to his and other teams. He won't get away with it in the short term, but the object of his ire are internet reporters who get bonuses from their employers based on page views for their stories. In a completely related development, USA Today announced this past week that it will start paying its reporters those bonuses.

Cuban's point is that at this juncture the electronic media in particular has taken on a paparazzi-like persona. No longer satisfied to ask the usual boring questions to athletes who give the same boring answers to questions like “how do you feel about losing this game?”, these reporters, Cuban claims, lie in wait in the locker room hoping to get a player in a vulnerable moment and then ask an embarrassing question or respond to a rumor. The intent is to get the player to adversely react, make that the story, throw it up on a web site immediately and bang the page views on the internet site increase exponentially. Advertisers pay based on page views, so it all makes sense.

I have no doubt that this kind of thing happens all the time. And while Cuban, an early adopter of almost any technology, rightly sees the trend that's developing, his inability to put it into historical perspective is clouding his judgment.

Any form of paid media, whether it's newspapers, television stations, radios or internet sites, needs readers to survive. The good outlets try to gain an economic advantage by employing good journalists. Others try to gain their advantage by employing the outrageous. Al Gore and the internet certainly didn't invent that or their employers' compensation systems.

Cuban's solution is to keep all of the local media around and limit or deny access to those purely internet reporters who are incented toward the outrageous in order to enhance page views and get their bonuses. What Cuban fails to understand is that the local media is similarly incented. The local print reporters see their material land on their newspapers' internet sites where the value of their work is likewise judged by page views. Same for local television reporters.

Cuban's barely disguised motive is to limit access to his team, theorizing that the team and each player has access to things like Twitter and Facebook and thus can get their own story out without the need for reporters. That's true in the same way the government has access to the same outlets and likewise could make the case that it could more easy get out its message without interference from the press.

But limiting access is never the answer. There are always stories to be told and leads to pursue and if a few obnoxious jerks posing as reporters make players, coaches and management a little uncomfortable at times, well that's the price to be paid for a free society.

The sad end to the transcendent career of Manny Ramirez is now at hand and while he was one of the best pure hitters in the game, his legacy will be that of a drug-using enigma.

It's really not a surprise that Ramirez would have violated baseball's drug policy again because Ramirez has proven several times over that he doesn't even have the sense that God gave a light bulb. I have this image of some shady drug dealing “trainer” telling Ramirez that he won't get caught and Ramirez swallowing that line like a dog swallows kibble, three times over.

What's so disappointing though is that Ramirez at some point several years ago reached the conclusion that he couldn't survive on his natural hitting skills any longer and that he needed artificial enhancements to stay in the game. That's simply a thought process I'll never understand.

I know that Ramirez is a fool whose deepest thought may be whether to get the steak or the salmon at dinner but his case still stands for the proposition of why steroids and other performance enhancing drugs remain part of the national conversation.

To watch Ramirez in his youth take the sweetest swing in the major leagues and consistently hit for average and power was a sight to behold. To watch Ramirez in his later years stroll through baseball as a clueless beach bum with a swing long since unhinged from its moorings was pathetic. If nothing else, it was the drugs more than age that took its toll on Ramirez and probably far sooner than it should have.

It's hard to know exactly why Ramirez, in his mid to late 30s, turned to steroids to get himself back on track. The chance of him talking about it publicly is nil. And though he did get caught, three times, I suspect that he'll still serve as a role model for every other player looking to get an edge. They'll surmise that all they need to do differently is be more careful than Ramirez. And given how Ramirez carries himself, there isn't a person alive who doesn't think he could be more careful or clever than Ramirez.

I have no idea whether Ramirez will ever get to the Hall of Fame, I just know he shouldn't. He certainly has the numbers. But when his name comes up for the first time on a Hall of Fame ballot 5 years from now, he'll be just as radioactive as Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire and will deserve to be. There's just no way of knowing how much of Ramirez's career accomplishments were the result of the artificial enhancements he used. Since that will never change, here's hoping that he never does garner enough support for election to the Hall of Fame and that in time he just becomes another footnote, a once potentially great player who threw it all away.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Empty Seats

We live in an era that tends to lack context with its past. If it happens now then surely it’s never happened before but even if it had, what we’re facing now is still unprecedented.

It’s against that backdrop comes all the recent kvetching about the low attendance last weekend at Progressive Field, as if no one in this town had lived through the ‘70s and ‘80s.

There were times in those decades, with a population in this town that was much higher and the competition significantly less, that the Indians had even worse trouble selling tickets. Heck, in those years when the Indians could actually put a million paying fans through the turnstiles, they’d award the poor saps who wandered in during some mid September game a trinket inscribed with “Thanks a Million” to signify this dubious achievement.

The Indians today are in the death grip of futility certainly but it’s not like we haven’t been down this road before.

In his encyclopedia of the Cleveland Indians, Russell Schneider recounts the desperate times that were the ‘70s and ‘80s, when the Indians were under-capitalized by another local product with a good heart. The Indians could barely afford to pay their bills. Even in an era where the Yankees had not yet quite discovered that outspending everyone else was the key to championship, the Indians were a desperate franchise that literally invented the financial trade that seems so common with the team today: one good player for three lousy ones.

Gabe Paul, the beleaguered general manager, had none of Mark Shapiro’s spit and polish but he had a similar gift of gab. He didn’t try to snow the public about the relative merits of players that everyone knew weren’t any good. But he would try to snow the fans about how he understood their angst, that the Indians were building for the future and that this town was a sleeping giant waiting to bust as soon as a winner was produced. That’s what Paul did all the way until the time he did then what everyone else now seems to do, join the Yankees.

You see, what Paul really knew then is the same thing Shapiro knows now: The money to realize a better future isn’t on the way.

Around that same time that Paul was trying to pull the wool over fans’ eyes, Case Western Reserve University (if memory serves me right) released a study that concluded that the Indians were indeed a sleeping giant, as if some sort of empirical proof were needed to back up Paul’s bluster. University researchers proved, as only university researchers can, that fans would indeed attend Indians game if the team could just become a winner. The study’s conclusions were embraced with a collective “duh.”

These days I don’t hear much talk about “sleeping giants.” It’s already well known that this town will support a winner, as 455 straight sellouts at what is now called Progressive Field will attest. But what I do hear is the same underlying theme: we’re just another year or two away from better days. Be patient.

There’s no reason now to think any differently about this team then people thought 40 years ago, presuming they can remember that far back. The situations are that similar.

You could quibble that the Indians under the ownership of Steve O’Neill were worse off financially than they are right now under the ownership of Larry and Paul Dolan. That’s probably true in the same way that it’s better to have suffered multiple compound fractures in your leg then it is to have had it amputated, though neither is pleasant nor fixable in the short term.

Besides, that kind of debate misses the point. Players today just like players then understand when a franchise is being run on a shoestring. All things being equal, they’d prefer not being in the situation. Where current ownership and management are really failing this franchise is in their inability to foster an atmosphere where a player feels like he could ever spend his entire career in this city. You don’t develop CC Sabathia or Victor Martinez and then ship them out when they become too expensive and not send a message to the rest or the players in the organization.

That puts the Indians in a perpetual spin cycle of boom and bust and there isn’t a damn thing that current ownership has the ability to do about it.

Even if they were of a mind to, it would be very difficult to tell. At this point I honestly don’t know what the Indians are trying to accomplish with the team they’re fielding at the moment. Surely neither Shapiro nor Chris Antonetti, nor either Dolan for that matter, honestly believes that this is a competitive team they’re trying to sell the public on right now. Not with this lineup.

What then, do they think? Fans hear about building to a competitive level over the next few years but that’s what they also said a few years ago so surely that’s just the kind of stock lie you tell the public to get them on to another topic. It’s the kind of thing Gabe Paul said each and every year as well.

That no one can really tell at this point what this Indians team is all about isn’t even the scariest thing about to ponder. That would be the fact that there really is no substantive difference between the franchise then and now.

In essence, the problem really plaguing this team is the same that’s been plaguing practically every Cleveland team. It lacks an identity that fans can either grasp or support. This team isn’t about pitching. It isn’t about hitting. It isn’t about moving runners over or manufacturing runs. It isn’t about anything other than being a “small market club” for whatever that means.

Right now the Indians, led by Shapiro, seem to carry the burden of being a small market team heavier than any other city. It’s the reason the team can’t compete, can’t sign free agents, can’t draft the players it really wants and can’t sell cold beer at reasonable prices.

For awhile, fans were buying those excuses but the lack of paying fans now suggests those days are ending.

There is nothing unprecedented about the current drop in attendance nor will there be if it drops further, which it likely will. But that doesn’t mean the red flags flying on a daily basis should be ignored.

The Indians were almost disbanded 40 years ago because the franchise was such a mess. The current Indians aren’t that desperate yet, but anyone who thinks it can’t get to that point must not be a student of history. Right now you have to wonder whether that group includes the Dolans and Shapiro.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Seasonal Affective Disorder

The real problem with living in the Cleveland area these days is that seasonal affective disorder is not confined to the depression we all tend to feel as the brutal winter bears down month after month. Unfortunately it also extends into the symptoms we also tend to feel as each professional sports team takes its turn in the box.

Where once summer's light promised to be the cure for what ailed you, all it does now, just like the flickering light of the seasons that follow it, is turn what were once symptoms into a way of life.

There is no great insight to be gained from one game into the Cleveland Indians' season. Indeed there is no great insight to be gained from any one game into any Cleveland Indians' season. But the loss on Friday to the Chicago White Sox still served as a reminder that seasonal affective disorder isn't going to abate any time soon even if the sun does manage to break through more than once a week.

Unfortunately, there's no one thing to blame nor is there just one thing that can turn this around, assuming wins and losses are what define your sports experience. Each of this town's teams are at the belly of a downward curve whose cumulative effect has been to make this and not some mythical place in New Jersey, a town full of losers.

The seasons of our discontent really began, in large measure, with the bizarre and dispiriting playoff loss the Cavaliers suffered at the hands of the Boston Celtics. We all watched with puzzled looks on our faces as LeBron James came up empty time after time in that series and once again the one team we all thought would go all the way ended up like every other team of our extended generation that we thought would go all the way: broken down on the side of some other town's road to a championship.

In retrospect of course it was clear that James had tanked the series because of some sort of disjointed thought process that he thought would make his planned exit our of Cleveland more palatable. When he quit on the Cavs and this city it left us irritable, sad and depressed, exactly the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Not a surprise.

The Indians, on their way to another 90-loss season, didn't give the fans any chance to pull themselves out of the dive. It wasn't just the losses that piled up like pennies in the bedroom change jar, it was how those losses piled up as well. The team wasn't particularly talented either, the usual mix of has beens, petered out prospects and next wave wannabes.

In the midst of all that though James revisted us all to essentially redefine what it means to be self-centered. He toyed with this city and others in one of the bigger frauds perpetuated by any athlete ever knowing all along he was heading to Miami to try and stack the NBA deck against the rest of the league.

It's one thing to watch a car wreck from a comfortable distance. It's a whole other matter to be sitting in the front seat of a beaten down Buick without seat belts or air bags as it bears down on a semi-tractor trailer stopped in the middle of the freeway.

James took a blowtorch to his reputation, which was all fine and good, but he also took a blowtorch to the collective psyches of a town looking for even the tiniest reason to look forward instead of wallowing in the past.

The win against Miami the other night was fun and a measure of revenge but in the cold light of the next day the Heat still stands as one of the better teams in the league and the Cavs have literally gone from first to worst, a status that won't change for probably another 10 years. Look it up.

Then as the Indians polished off the final phases of another lost season, the Browns jumped in with lots of misplaced promise and proceeded to lose their first three games of the season. When the season was almost half over, they stood at 1-6 and it became clear that whatever progress was promised wasn't going to be realized.

The Browns did tease their fans with improbable wins against New Orleans and New England but then won only twice more and when the dust settled, so did the Browns at an all to usual 5-11. Oh yea, another coach got fired, the reboot switch triggered once again.

There were some fun moments in that season if you were willing to look, none better than the on-going argument between the Eric Mangini apologists and haters as they debated his merits or lack thereof as the season came to an end with another blowout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

There were the usual small amounts of light, too, in the form of players like Peyton Hillis and Colt McCoy who brought a few sparks to the offense, perhaps enough to give the fans the kinds of teases that losing seasons tend to give their fans. It's like the birdie you make on the 18th hole even though you shot a 97 for the day. There's always something to keep you coming back.

Then of course the circle was once again complete as the Cavs season began. It started well enough with what in retrospect turned out to be a rare win, this time against those same Boston Celtics that James hid from just months before. But where the season really fell apart was that much anticipated game on December 2nd against those posers from Miami. This town needed its measure of revenge. It needed a reason to believe. What it really needed was to see someone knock James on his ass a few times.

Instead what it got was a soul-less team that stood in awe of the one player they still considered the King and proceeded to get blown out by 28 points. In all the losses by all the teams that fans in this town have seen over all these years, the loss to Miami was perhaps the most difficult to absorb.

It was a meaningless early season game in a waaaaay too long NBA season in once sense, but in another it encapsulated all the hopes and fears and rejections and disappointments this town has ever felt in one relatively confined two hour period. If there was ever a reason for this town to feel unworthy, this was it. That loss begged the question of where do we go from here? There is no answer.

It also started a downward spiral for the franchise that made it once again made this town a national joke as the Cavs proceeded to lose all but one of their next 34 games. Roll that around your minds for a minute.

The Cavaliers spent literally theirs and our entire winter months from December through February winning exactly 4 games. Any wonder that we all suffer from seasonal affective disorder?

It's that kind of run up really that provides all the context anyone needs for the Indians' home opening loss to the White Sox. It was nice to see the Indians make it relatively respectable but let's face it, they were also down 14-0 at one point. It's hard to actually imagine a worst worst-case scenario.

The Indians' ace by default, Fausto Carmona, stood at the mound throwing batting practice to a compliant White Sox lineup that looked grateful to have gotten in a little extra time in the cage. Justin Germano then came in and tried to replicate Carmona's performance.

There were some positives, there always are when you're trying to find a reason to pull yourself out of the doldrums. The Indians collected 17 hits, which is just one less than they gave up to the White Sox. And every player in the lineup had at least one hit except, naturally, the one free agent the Tribe bothered to sign this off season, Austin Kearns.

As usual, though, the positives didn't outweigh the negatives as another Indians season is off and running once again.

Still I can't see any end game in picking on the Tribe too much. All they were doing was continuing a cycle that has turned out to be much bigger than they can conquer on their own. It's too big for any one of us to conquer on our own.

This seasonal affective disorder will abate at some point, it has to. And perhaps it really is us that holds the key. Medication could help but the real key to getting through it is to remember why we follow these sports in the first place. Wins and losses, like players, come and go. It's the games. It's always been the games.